January 10th, 2021 by Jennifer Sensiba
If 2021 were given to all of us on a 7-day trial, most of us wouldn’t have kept the subscription. Violence, political strife, and worse have given all but Trump’s most loyal supporters a bad taste in their mouths. I know he didn’t want to do anything good for clean energy, but thanks to his actions in his first and only term we now know that clean energy is a force to be reckoned with. Even a U.S. president’s efforts couldn’t kill it.
Let’s do a quick review of the ways Trump and other Republicans tried to stack the deck against renewables, electric vehicles, and other clean technologies, and look at why they failed.
2017-18: When Trump Had The Most Power
Donald Trump started his term with a “federal trifecta.” With his party in control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, it was a lot easier to pass bills into law without being stopped by Democratic Party opposition.
One of Trump’s first frustrations was an inability to quickly exit the Paris agreement on climate change. Prior negotiators already knew that a future conservative president would attempt to exit any climate agreements, so they built in a number of delay mechanisms to prevent a quick exit. Trump announced intent to exit the agreement in 2017, but was already bound to stay in the agreement until just after the most recent election.
Despite the exit, nothing has changed because companies, states, and a variety of other entities vowed to stay within the agreement no matter what the federal government did. In the end, individual liberty, the free market, and states’ rights kept the accord’s emissions reductions alive, and it’s likely to be put back into place by Biden.
Another way he tried to fight clean energy was by putting tariffs on cheap solar panels from China. In theory, this was an “America first” policy that would put American manufacturers on a better footing with Chinese competitors, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that it was a favor to the fossil fuel industry, especially coal, and to utility companies.
Looking at solar installation numbers from the Solar Energy Industries Association, it’s obvious that he didn’t put a dent in solar installations. Consumer preference for energy independence, lower electric bills, and state/local mandates all kept solar installations humming along despite the tariffs.
Regarding solar, it’s also worth noting that he was unable to get votes together to end solar tax credits during this period.
CNN Business put together a pretty good list of his other failures during this period, and probably the biggest failure was the attempt to prop up coal. As natural gas and renewable energy prices continued to drop, coal was staying expensive. Naturally, utilities didn’t want to buy coal, because it makes no business sense to spend more money on a dirtier fuel. Many coal plants were converted to run on natural gas, and new plants were built either for natural gas or as renewables projects of various kinds.
In theory, Republicans believe in free markets and wouldn’t prop up coal, but in practice Trump and energy secretary Rick Perry pushed for socialism in the form of subsidies. They claimed that it was for national security, because coal and nuclear plants could keep 90 days worth of fuel and qualify for the proposed subsidies, but everyone knew that it was designed to keep coal competitive at taxpayer expense.
He couldn’t get legislation passed, and his last chance to favor coal relied on a proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who rejected it outright.
The genie can’t be put back in the bottle now that the market favors clean energy. None of his other efforts could beat freedom back to save the day for his cronies and campaign donors.
After the 2018 Election
Trump has repeatedly tried to kill the $7500 electric vehicle tax credits, and that wasn’t any easier after the 2018 midterms. Even with Republicans in control of congress, there weren’t votes for it. Later, with Democratic representatives in charge of the House of Representatives, there definitely wasn’t support for such a bill, and with utilities favoring electric cars, even Republican votes were getting more rare.
Seeing that he couldn’t get anything done legislatively, he next turned to find ways to kill renewables and EVs with executive actions. First, he lowered federal fuel economy standards. Then, he tried to strip California of its power to set higher standards, and ended up in court. When automakers voluntarily agreed to uphold California’s higher fuel economy standards regardless of the case’s outcome, Trump pushed for a federal investigation to harass the automakers.
In the end, he did lower the federal standards, but the market didn’t want to follow his lead. Fuel economies continue to rise, despite Trump’s quixotic fight against the market, states’ rights, and any other conservative principle that got in the way.
When he renegotiated NAFTA, he similarly tried to abandon conservative principles for nationalism, and arguably communism, with a desire to get direct control over where cars are made, with that decisionmaking power resting with him like a dictator. That was too much for the other governments, and doesn’t appear to have made it into the revised agreement.
What Trump Inadvertently Taught Us
Probably the biggest thing is that Trump got beat by market forces. Renewable energies are decentralized, under local or even individual control in many cases, and don’t rise in price to fatten the wallets of rent-seeking oil executives. He tried everything he could to put the advantage to fossil fuels, but could not. Nobody wants to buy expensive energy, and no amount of arm-twisting can change that.
The other thing he taught us is that political support for clean energy is good, but not a requirement anymore. Renewables are established, and prices have dropped drastically in the last ten years. Even consumers who don’t believe in climate change find it hard to pass up better pricing. With EVs, it’s hard to ignore the performance and cost advantages, too.
While clean technology is likely to do even better under Biden and likely Harris, it will be good to know that they aren’t the only thing holding it up. When someone inevitably makes that argument, Trump is the perfect proof that it isn’t true. Even when the next conservative president starts a term, it won’t be the end of the world.
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